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Teaching synthetic phonics and reading: PIRLS of wisdom?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 October 2023

White pearl in the lip of a clam shell.

Credit: By-studio / Adobe Stock.

Dominic Wyse.

This is the first of three blog posts about the teaching of phonics, reading and writing. The approach of this blog series is characterised as ‘A Balancing Act’:

  1. Understanding the PIRLS 2021 results;
  2. England’s narrow approach to phonics teaching;
  3. What works for phonics, reading and writing

The Balancing Act: Part 1

In an article in the Telegraph newspaper in May 2023 the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb MP, claimed “Our ‘obsession’ with phonics has worked”. The claim was based on his interpretation of the Progress in International Reading and Literacy (PIRLS) 2021 study published earlier this year. The minister’s main point was that “England was fourth out of 43 comparable countries” because apparently teachers had “embraced phonics”. England’s average scale score in PIRLS 2021 was 558, compared to a score of 559 in the previous round, in 2016.

The Covid pandemic created a series of extreme challenges for collecting the data for PIRLS 2021. This means it is even more questionable than usual to attempt to make a crude causal link between England’s phonics policy and the PIRLS ranking. One of the many Covid-related challenges faced by the researchers who collected the PIRLS pupil test data was the timing of when the assessments for each country’s pupils’ reading were carried out. England’s sample of pupils was tested between May and July 2022, a full calendar year later than originally scheduled. By May 2022 this cohort had therefore had more time post-lockdown to settle back into teaching and learning than in most other countries, who stuck to the original schedule or closer to it than did England, an advantage that could have affected the test scores.

There are other factors that must also be taken account of. For example, the PIRLS report makes clear that there are overlaps in the range of pupils’ scores for each country (shown statistically as ‘confidence intervals’). So, although it is good news that England is towards the top of one of the PIRLS ranking tables, so are many other countries. And crucially, none of those countries has the rigid, narrow approach of synthetic phonics that England does (see the second post in this series for more on this). In this regard, and close to home, the continuing success of Ireland is something worthy of more attention by policy makers.

Another of the minister’s obsessions is about “education academics” driven by “progressive teaching methods”. In the aforementioned article, Mr Gibb claimed that academics (unnamed) were wrong to suggest that England’s narrow synthetic phonics could “kill children’s joy of reading”. The PIRLS 2021 research asked pupils directly about how much they liked reading, and found that England was 42nd out of 57 countries. A worrying 24% of England’s pupils said that they did not like reading, and 48% said they only somewhat like reading; 29% said they very much like reading. PIRLS also found a link between pupils not liking reading and lower attainment in reading. To summarise the PIRLS outcomes more fairly, the minister should have reported important but less positive aspects, such as the reading motivation scores. Whether there is a causal link between England’s synthetic phonics approach and children’s motivation for reading remains an open question because experimental trials to test this have not been carried out.

The PIRLS report cannot reasonably be used to justify England’s narrow approach of synthetic phonics in the way that was reported in the Telegraph article. Selective reporting of research (e.g. selecting parts of single studies, or selecting single research studies rather than considering multiple similar studies on a topic), remains a serious problem in ensuring the most effective research-based practice is rigorously reflected in and supported by policy.

A more comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of phonics and reading, by myself and my colleague, Alice Bradbury, has addressed other relevant international comparisons, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Our work also analysed multiple systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials, the ‘gold standard’ in research evidence. This broader view of the literature provides a more valid and reliable picture of effective phonics policy and practice.

Most people quite rightly regard ‘obsessions’ as not altogether positive characteristics: a more balanced approach to teaching phonics, reading and writing is needed in England, which I say more about in the following blog post in this series.

Professor Dominic Wyse is speaking at a free International Literacy Association webinar on Tuesday 10 October 2023, 19:30 BST, as part of a discussion panel on Dyslexia: what we know and what we want to know.

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